The images spill out with a reassuring -- and yet faintly troubling -- familiarity. At first glance most of them seem benign, like the shot of an Orthodox Jewish man in Jerusalem hurrying home with a live chicken under his arm on the eve of Yom Kippur, 1967; it might have been photographed by Roman Vishniac in 1930s Poland. Or whimsical: in 1973, a miniskirted model, her head cropped out of the frame, parades in front of a multitude of uniformed female army troops.
But then comes a photo of a row of hooded Palestinian informers, their heads in burlap bags, under guard in an army truck on the West Bank, circa 1967. And the Diane Arbus-like view over the shoulder of a man barbecuing food at an Independence Day picnic in 1978; in front of him, carefree children cavort in the grass, but the man is packing a heavy-duty sidearm. The undercurrent is ominous. We're in Israel. War is always imminent.
The photographs of Micha Bar-Am are Israeli the way those of Dorothea Lange or Gordon Parks are American -- that is, in his fifty-year career Bar-Am has captured daily life in Israel as a socially concerned participant, not merely as a spectator. The Berlin-born combat photographer and New York Times correspondent moved to Palestine when he was six years old, in 1936. The soldiers, kibbutzniks, Christian pilgrims, Russian immigrants, political prisoners, and demonstrators in his remarkable black-and-white street scenes are people he knows well. Even when Bar-Am observes a scene overloaded with irony -- as in a shot of passing Arabs, with camel and goats, begging from an oblivious group of Israeli women sunbathing topless at Taba Beach in the Sinai -- he retains his basic affection for the contradictions of Israeli life.
"Our Daily Bread: Micha Bar-Am's Photographs of Israel" opens Friday with a reception and lecture by the photographer (6 p.m.), at the Graduate School of Journalism Center for Photography, at Northgate Hall on the UC Berkeley campus. Center director Ken Light notes: "So many of the photos of Israel are of bombings and terror, but this shows the fabric of everyday life." It runs through January 20, 2004. Info: 510-642-3383.
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